The memorandum of understanding (MoU) adopted by the European Union (EU) and Tunisia constitutes a further milestone in the externalisation of the EU's asylum policy, a flawed policy already widely denounced as seriously endangering human rights and solidarity.
On July 16, 2023, Tunisian President, Kais Saied and the “Team Europe” made up of the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, the former Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and the Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, presented the "Memorandum of Understanding on a strategic and comprehensive partnership between the European Union and Tunisia". The MoU was published in the form of a press release. As such, this text constitutes a declaration of political intentions and is not legally binding. The adoption of the MoU, which echoes the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement that has been widely denounced and is today the symbol of the failure of this externalisation policy, marks a further step in the ongoing and worrying process of lowering EU standards of refugee protection.
Prior to the adoption of the MoU, on June 11, 2023, Ursula van der Leyen stated that the EU and Tunisia “will work together on an Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnership” and that the EU will “support Tunisia with border management” by providing “EUR 100 million to Tunisia for border management, but also search and rescue and anti-smuggling and return” which demonstrates the willingness of all parties to cooperate further on migration.
The MoU adopted on July 16, is structured around five key points: macro-economic stability; economy and trade; green energy transition; rapprochement between peoples; migration and mobility. Given the importance of the issues at stake for Tunisia and the EU, migration is a core element to this ‘deal’.
The Central Mediterranean route, located between North Africa and Italy, was the most active migratory route during the first quarter of 2023: between January and March 2023, Frontex recorded 27,651 irregular border crossings on this route, representing a 305% increase on the previous year. Tunisia and Libya are the main departure points for people crossing this route to seek asylum in the European Union. Additionally, according to the International Rescue Committee, “[i]n recent months, Tunisia has overtaken Libya as the primary departure point in North Africa for people seeking protection in Europe”. This explains the political and legal importance attached to the migration aspect of the MoU.
Through the MoU, the EU and Tunisia plan to combat "irregular migration", develop legal routes for migration, and fight against criminal networks of smugglers and human trafficking. The parties also plan to collaborate on more effective management of Tunisia's borders and develop a system for identifying and returning irregular migrants present in Tunisia. The EU and Tunisia have also agreed to cooperate on search and rescue operations at sea. Finally, the EU plans to provide additional financial support to Tunisia for the acquisition of equipment, training, and technical support to improve the country's border management. In financial terms, the EU will provide 785 million euros to Tunisia, of which 105 million will be earmarked for migration management. If Tunisia accepts the IMF's loan proposal conditional on the implementation of reforms, the EU could provide additional funds of 900 million euros to Tunisia.
The various actors behind the adoption of this text present it as a significant step forward. Commenting on the MoU, Ursula van der Leyen stressed the importance of strengthening the EU's cooperation with its strategic partners. For his part, Mark Rutte indicated that this agreement would be beneficial for both the Tunisian and EU peoples. Finally, Giorgia Meloni declared that this MoU "can be considered a model for the establishment of new relations with North Africa". Despite this very optimistic presentation, the fact remains that this text is one more step in the EU’s failing asylum policy. By adopting this ‘deal’, following the failure of the intergovernmental agreements with Türkiye and Libya, the EU is demonstrating that it did not learn anything from these last seven years and is unwilling to respect its international obligations and establish and fair asylum procedure, at the expense of respect for human rights and the values it promotes.
Indeed, this MoU rests on the premise that Tunisia is a safe third country for asylum seekers, but it is not. Once again, as in the other cooperation agreements linked to the migration issue that the EU has established, human rights violations are completely disregarded, which is extremely worrying. In April 2023, the United Nations High Commissioner called on Tunisia to stop hate speech and violence against migrants, following hate speech by the Tunisian head of state, the return policy put in place and the arbitrary arrest and detention of migrants, which violate the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In March 2023, numerous NGOs such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International denounced the violence perpetrated by citizens following calls for hatred made by the Tunisian President, but also by the forces of law and order against black migrants and refugees. They reported arbitrary arrests, beatings, violent assaults, theft and discrimination. Similarly, investigations have shown that detainees held at the Wardia reception and orientation center in Tunis are facing "mistreatment, inadequate sanitation facilities, lack of access to medical services and legal representation, and a shortage of bedding." More recently, HRW denounced the illegal and violent collective expulsion of hundreds of black migrants and asylum seekers to the desert at the Libyan border which violates the 1951 Refugee Convention and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. These people got trapped in this dangerous "buffer zone", unable to enter Libyan territory or return to Tunisia and without access to food, water nor to any services. According to Libya’s interior ministry, on July, 25, “the bodies of five African migrants were found near to the Tunisian border”. It was against this alarming backdrop for the protection of human rights that the MoU was signed between the EU and Tunisia.
When the parties agree that "[t]his approach will be based on respect for human rights", this is more an exercise in rhetorical style than a genuine desire to safeguard the rights of refugees. By virtue of the broadness and imprecision of the wording chosen, the parties have clearly avoided providing for concrete mechanisms to protect the fundamental rights of refugees, which therefore take a back seat to the agreement on migration. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, pointed this out and concluded that “[f]ailure to establish clear and concrete safeguards in migration co-operation activities will only add to the worrying trend of human rights being sacrificed to European states’ attempts to externalise their responsibilities.”
Finally, in addition to the serious human rights concerns raised by this agreement, it runs the risk of being counterproductive. Instead of limiting or eradicating the criminal networks of smugglers, the approach adopted here by the EU runs the risk of producing the opposite effect. Once again, contrary to what is said publicly, instead of offering legal migration pathways, the EU seems to be fighting against people seeking international protection, rather than criminal networks. This is yet another reminder of the EU-Turkey Statement and its consequences for the situation in Greece. NGOs and members of civil society systematically call on the European Union to explore new strategies such as setting up "safe passage, and investment in foreign development rather than in foreign border guards"; nonetheless, no change in the approach is observed.
This MoU of July 16, 2023, which according to the Italian Prime Minister should serve as a model for future cooperation agreements on migration, has already been denounced by NGOs, MEPs and the Council of Europe. On 14 August, 379 academics and members of civil society from nearly 10 countries issued a statement denouncing this MoU and, more generally, the European Union's policy of externalising asylum, which jeopardises respect for human rights and endangers the lives of asylum seekers.
The EU-Turkey statement, the EU's cooperation with Libya, the EU-Tunisia MoU, the negotiations between the EU and Egypt, and between the EU and Morocco all point to a tendency for the EU to give priority to ‘secure its borders’, instead of protecting human lives. The values promoted by the EU, such as democracy, the protection of human rights or the rule of law, thus appear to be mere rhetorical elements, which in practice are systematically flouted by the partnerships the EU establishes where the migration question is concerned.